'Lost Boys Symphony' Blurs The Lines Between Reality And Madness
Not YA, not New Adult, not anything of the sort, despite the fact that it is primarily about teenagers, their love lives and the sticky, weird and thrilling moment of leaving home and growing up, just a little, for the very first time.
Not science fiction, not weird fiction or even, really, garden variety magical realism. The fact that it has time travel in it (lots and lots of time travel) shouldn't throw you. There are no machines. No wormholes. No one even really seems to know how it works, and that's okay. More than okay, actually. It's central — the mystery around which Mark Andrew Ferguson's debut novel, The Lost Boys Symphony, rotates. But still, not science fiction. Not even a little.
It all begins with Henry — a young man, already more than a little bit weird, and the sort of musical prodigy who isn't really a prodigy at all, but only seems that way because of his hours of practice, his brain wired for sound, and his obsessions.
Henry has a friend named Gabe. A best friend, clutched to, discarded and reached for again in the way that boys do — the two of them an emotionally perfect binary existing in a complicated Boy World of sleepovers, snacks, parents, school and memory. Everything about them, from the desperate affection of high school outsiders to the dirty socks and moldering shower curtains of first apartments together is rendered in museum-grade detail. Also, Henry is insane.
Not in any sweet or swoony look at the fragile artist kind of way, but in an agonizingly real way: Henry is schizophrenic for sure, diagnosed, medicated and hospitalized at various points throughout the book. It starts simple, as these things often do, with a quiet kid hearing music that plays only in his own head, but then it gets worse.
And then there's Val, the young woman who becomes Henry's high school girlfriend. Who centers and grounds him and quiets the world just by being in it. Who goes off to Rutgers with Henry and Gabe, the three of them forming a protective little emotional bubble universe in which things never have to change.
Only things do, because change is the way of things. Val leaves Henry, changes schools, moves to New York. Henry's grip on reality slips, his pain and heartbreak triggering the first tremors of a full psychotic break. He drifts away from Gabe. He forgets to eat or sleep or bathe. The music in his head starts coming together into a massive and overpowering symphony, building until the song is the only thing he can hear.
Henry decides that seeing Val in New York is the only thing that will save him. But while crossing the George Washington Bridge, he suffers the most powerful hallucination yet, and reality just ... breaks.
And at this point in the novel (which comes fairly early), you have to make a choice as a reader: Do you believe that Henry is suffering through an increasingly destructive mental illness? Or do you believe that his love for Val was so strong, his need for her so great, that the loss of her has shattered the structural underpinnings of the universe? That he has, in his misery, been given the ability to move back and forth through time in order to try and win her back?
Which side of that line you fall on may surprise you. You'll believe in the reality of Henry's smashed-up timeline(s) one minute, then know for sure that the 80-year-old Henry at the kitchen table and the 41-year-old Henry in the park are just figments generated by the unbalanced mind of a 19-year-old Henry. The line between fantasy and reality will be completely blurred before you're done.
And this, in turn, will allow you to sink into the clean, precise style of Ferguson's writing. He has a way with the language (in particular the lyrical bits of it, the odd, dangly details of lived-in lives), but the cleverest trick he pulls is in never modulating his voice or tone. Any contextual clues as to the reality (or unreality) of any given moment have been scrubbed from the text, and it all plays out in a constant state of fluttering, haloed authenticity. You can taste the weedy, sour first beers that Val and Gabe share months after Henry's disappearance, hear the jangling syncopation of the songs in Henry's head, and smell the mold in the shower. Ferguson never shies away.
And whether the narrative is tracking Val's very real present, Gabe's guilt-stricken, infected, half-fantastical now, or any of the multitude of Henrys populating the past, present and future, Ferguson does not judge. He does not coddle. He simply tells his tale and lets it lie there, as beautiful and broken as anything else in the world, its veracity to be judged by those who can only look in from the outside.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.
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